National University (NU) resurrected its Final Four hopes with a much-needed 77-70 victory over University of the Philippines (UP) at the end of the first round of elimination of Season 80 University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) men’s basketball on Sunday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Matt Salem finally broke out of a scoring slump and Jayjay Alejandro anchored the Bulldogs’ comeback in the final period as NU snapped a three-game losing streak to tie its victims in the standings with identical 3-4 win-loss slates.
Relative quiet in their first six games, Salem finally found his offensive rhythm in the most crucial game for the Bulldogs as he tallied a season-high 21 points and added 10 rebounds to lead NU.
“It’s no secret that Salem has been struggling scoring wise. His defense is average but for us to have a good push, he needs to overachieve,” said Bulldogs head coach Jamike Jarin, who also drew 13 points and eight rebounds from Issa Gaye.
“Our team is not talented enough to close out games. It’s always a collective effort,” Jarin added.
Alejandro, NU’s co-captain, was instrumental in the Bulldogs’ surge in the payoff period, accounting for six in their 9-2 exchange to turn a 58-60 deficit into a 67-62 lead with 4:59 left in the game.
But Paul Desiderio unloaded two triples in the Fighting Maroons’ 8-3 response to tie the count at 70-all, 1:34 remaining.
UP thought it had the momentum but Alejandro sent Jarrell Lim in the air with a nifty fake and scored on a spin move to break the tie while Salem, who averaged just 6 points in hhe first six outings, delivered the dagger with a corner trey to give NU a 75-70 cushion, 45 ticks left.
The downfall of the Fighting Maroons was sealed when Diego Dario threw an errand inbound pass to Jerson Prado that resulted to Jordan Bartlett’s two free throws to peg the final score.
“Hopefully, our experience in the first round will benefit us and will result to more wins for us,” said the rookie mentor Jarin.
It was a tough loss for the Fighting Maroons, who after a 3-1 start that included a 98-87 upset win over defending champion De La Salle University, have dropped their last three to fall out of the top four.
Playmaker Jun Manzo’s injury early in the third period was also a big blow for the team of head coach Bo Perasol. Manzo sprained his right ankle after a bad fall at 7:55 of the third canto and did not return.
Desiderio topscored for UP with 15 points while Dario and Javi Gomez de Liano added 11 and 10 markers, respectively.